This Counterpart review contains spoilers.
Counterpart Season 1 Episode 6
An interesting side effect to the slower pacing of the story in Counterpart is that when there’s a big reveal, it has a ton of impact without changing the rhythm significantly. The ending of “Act Like You’ve Been Here Before” arrives like the apocryphal fable of the frog placed in warm water slowly rising to a boil who doesn’t notice the danger until he’s cooked. When the cloud of mistrust around Quayle is presented together with Baldwin’s suspicion of her new friend, Greta, it’s enough to make everyone paranoid, whether character or viewer. What a dizzying adventure!
The vignette with the sleeper agent who is kept awake by street noise really reveals the brutality the conspirators are willing to indulge to keep their mission secret. His experience with more populated streets, fancier camera phones, and care-free kisses reminds us of the differences between the two worlds and perhaps how seductive this one can be. The fact that the “Ringleader,” as Lotte Verbeek’s character is billed on IMDb, dispatches her colleague for his indiscretion also shows how dangerous these temptations are.
The same dangers are then transferred to both Baldwin and Clare. The assassin wants to disappear (and perhaps travel with Greta), but she can’t do that unless she is paid for a completed job. Clare, then, becomes an enigmatic figure in that she seems to sympathize with Baldwin even though she was forced to order her death, yet her pivotal role in passing the documents from her husband’s floor to the School would seem to preclude such feelings. Meanwhile, Baldwin has learned her lesson about being vulnerable around women like Clare and brings a gun to bed with Greta, and who can blame her? And that’s just a couple of examples of character complexity in this show.
We saw Clare visit Heinrich in his butcher shop last week, but we didn’t know then that she was Quayle’s wife and the Diplomacy director’s daughter. What’s so fun about this discovery is that we know something Howard Prime and Aldrich don’t. The Section 2 agent might be letting his friendship with Heinrich and his sympathy for the widow who found him fingerless and toothless cloud his judgment, and Aldrich and Cyrus already think Quayle is the mole. The anticipation for the ensuing game of cat and mouse as Quayle tries to avoid becoming the scapegoat is what makes this episode enjoyable past its conclusion.
Another entertaining development this week is Ian’s clueless interrogation of our Howard, which began with the humorous note of busting a customs agent for having Prince’s new album — a great way to set the tone for what was to come. J. K. Simmons continues to excel at differentiating the two Howards’ reactions to the point where when the mild Howard puts his foot down with Ian, it comes across as empowering rather than posturing. The best part is he knows nothing, and the Oversight specialist (who, of course, is a conspirator himself) thinks Howard has found a way to defeat the lie detector. Love it!
So Ian is not as perceptive as Emily Prime, who figured out which Howard she was dealing with right away, but her desire to use her ex-husband’s counterpart to glean information must understandably be kept secret. What’s great about this arrangement is that she must not only make sure Howard doesn’t have unrealistic expectations about their relationship; she also must put the same protections in place for Anna. Such multifaceted motivations give layers of meaning to phrases like Emily’s caution to her daughter, “Sooner or later he will be back to his old self.”
Counterpart is great at creating these layers of meaning, especially in the cloak-and-dagger style that makes spy thrillers so entertaining. For example, there’s the calm manner with which Pope takes Casper’s call (noting carefully the rotary phone and flip phones of the Prime side) about the “lunch special” and responds by using another phone to “mistakenly” call the dry cleaners, no doubt alerting those at the address Brandt gave Emily Prime to burn everything. Between this scene and the news report of the sleeper agent’s body found in the hostel, we know these people have backup plans within contingency plans. Layers!
Even the symbolism of Greta’s fractured photographs that Baldwin admires shows the depth of Counterpart’s storytelling, and that’s what makes the series consistently great week to week. “Act Like You’ve Been Here Before” is particularly good because of the shocking revelation at the end, but the fact that we care what happens to all of the characters even as we struggle to understand the deeper story is what draws us back week after week. Now that the ten-episode season is in its second half, there’s every hope that each remaining installment will be as good as if not better the one before it.